A look at El Palacio Nacional

Monument to the survivors and victims of the Tlatelolco Massacre of 1968, located in la Plaza 
de las Tres Culturas.

There is a designated square and monument to “las Tres Culturas” in the Cuauhtémoc burrough of modern day Mexico City. It sits atop land that was once the ancient Mexica city of Tlatelolco–where the last Mexica ruler Cuauhtémoc fought his final battle with Hernán Cortés–officially ending the Aztec empire. It is also the land upon which the Massacre of Tlatelolco took place, in which somewhere between 300 to 400 people were systematically killed by military and police in 1968, 10 days before Mexico City hosted the Summer Olympics. The “three cultures” represented in the square are: the Mesoamerican, the colonial, and the independent nation.

View from the second floor of el Palacio Nacional’s main courtyard, overlooking the central fountain from which rises a Bronze statue of Pegasus.

The thing is, the more time you spend in Mexico City, the more you realize that everything around you is a monument to the three (or sometimes four or five) cultures. Subway and building construction is constantly being interrupted by the spontaneous discovery of ancient ruins and artifacts. Lake Texcoco, around which Tenochtitlan was so carefully built–and which the Spanish Empire stubbornly insisted upon draining in their expansion of New Spain–attempts to re-establish itself each year, flooding major sectors of the basin, and causing problems for modern day chilangos. A Toltec altar (which dates back to 750 AD!) shares the same final resting place as a colonial aqueduct in Los Bosques de Chapultapec.

Religious relics from Emperor Moctezuma II’s “New Houses”.

El Palacio Nacional, situated in Mexico City’s Plaza de la
Constitución, or Zócalo, is no different. It is the actual site of Mexica huey tlatoani (emperor) Moctezuma II’s construction of his “New Houses” or tecpancalli in 1503. It served as the residence and seat of power for succeeding Mexica rulers (Cuitláhuac–Moctezuma’s half brother who died shortly after ascending, and last tlotoani–Cuauhtémoc) until the empire was overtaken by Cortés’ army, and the “New Houses” were demolished.

Meanwhile in Asia, Ferdinand Magellan was leading his own destroy and conquer expedition in the Indies and Asia–also funded and sponsored by the Spanish Crown. He played a large role in Spanish conquest of the Philippines, which is why we are honorary Latinos.

After the conquest, Cortés had the palace rebuilt with more citadel-like features–cannons, crenels and a tower for arsenal–in addition to its offices, courtrooms and residential quarters. The Spanish Crown purchased the palace from the Cortés family, and it housed nearly all of the viceroys for New Spain, save the first and last, until Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1820. Because of a conflict between Viceroy Diego Carillo de Mendoza and archbishop Juan Perez de la Serna that ended in the latter being arrested, supporters of the archbishop held a riot, invaded, and set fire to the palace in 1624, nearly destroying it completely. After its renovation, the new iteration of the palace replaced many of Cortés’ military features with the baroque ornamentation that characterizes today’s Palacio Nacional.

There were a couple of moments after Mexico formally shucked off Spanish rule in 1821, in which Mexican monarchies emerged. The first was right after the declaration of independence, from 1822 to 1823, with Don Augustin Geronimo de Iturbide, and then again for a brief moment from 1864-1867, with Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian I. They each spent their brief rules living in the palace, and were both dethroned and executed during their administrations. Every Mexican president resided in the palace until 1884, until Los Pinos became the official residential quarters of the head of state. This trend persisted until last year, when AMLO declared his intention to either reoccupy it during his time in office, or move into an apartment nearby, in order to open up the splendorous Los Pinos as a museum for the people.

Among the many Mexican presidents who lived in the Palacio Nacional is the popular and widely loved Benito Juarez, a liberal Zapotec lawyer from the small town of San Pablo Guelatao, Oaxaca, who served during both the French Invasion of Mexico and the Liberal Reform era. He is considered a national symbol of Mexican resistance to foreign intervention. There is a whole wing dedicated to him, complete with fan art of the time, letters between him and his wife, and reconstructed versions of their living quarters.

Shortly after the Mexican revolution, in 1929, radical communist painter Diego Rivera was contracted by the Mexican government to the cover a stairwell and part of the second floor of el Palacio Nacional in murals depicting not only the Mexican revolution, but also an abridged meso-american history. This is well known attraction for Mexican nationals and tourists alike. The murals are very lovely, and interesting, so here’s a picture.

One of many Diego Rivera murals in the Main Stairwell of the Palacio Nacional

I’m getting kind of tired of writing about men (funny how that tends to happen the moment Diego Rivera comes up), so I will end this post with a fact about el Palacio Nacional that I found most interesting:

Self-educated scholar, early feminist, philosopher, mathematician, scientist, poet and Hieronymite nun of New Spain, the honorable Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, graced the Palacio Nacional with her residency under the rule of
viceroy Antonio Sebastián de Toledo as a lady in waiting for his wife, Vicereine Leonor Carreto. This woman’s virtues are too long to list, and it was truly the highlight of my visit to have seen a few of her humble belongings. Look out for another post about the University of the Cloister of Sor Juana. I leave you with one of her most famous poems, A Su Retrato (To Her Portait). While its clear that Sor Juana refers to her own portrait, her own ephemeral youth–I like to think of the poem as it applies more broadly to the passage of time, and to sites like el Palacio Nacional, or Mexico City itself–the rise and fall of empires with their flamboyant rulers and larger than life symbolism–relics of greatness bygone that are reduced in the end to stories that the taxi driver tells you on your way to the airport, blog posts, museum arrangements, “corpse and dust, shadow and nothingness”.

Her bible, inkwells and lectern.


Este que ves engaño colorido,
que del arte ostentando los primores,
con falsos silogismos de colores,
es cauteloso engaño del sentido;

este, en quien la lisonja ha pretendido
excusar de los años los horrores,
y venciendo del tiempo los rigores
triunfar de la vejez y del olvido,

es un vano artificio del cuidado,
es una flor al viento delicada,
es un resguardo inútil para el hado,

es una necia diligencia errada,
es un afán caduco y, bien mirado,
es cadáver, es polvo, es sombra, es nada.


This coloured counterfeit that thou beholdest,
vainglorious with excellencies of art,
is, in fallacious syllogisms of colour,
nought but a cunning dupery of sense;

this in which flattery has undertaken
to extenuate the hideousness of years,
and, vanquishing the outrages of time,
to triumph o’er oblivion and old age,

is an empty artifice of care,
is a fragile flower in the wind,
is a paltry sanctuary from fate,

is a foolish sorry labour lost,
is conquest doomed to perish and, well taken,
is corpse and dust, shadow and nothingness.

(translation by Samuel Beckett)